“We could, as a culture, eliminate 80 percent of all chronic disease,” says Dr David Katz, one of the world’s leading proponents of lifestyle as medicine, during a recent visit to South Africa. “But my family and yours cannot afford to keep on waiting on the world to change. By taking matters into our own hands, we can lose weight and find health right now. We can reduce our personal risk of chronic disease, and that of the people we love, by that very same 80 percent. We can make our lives not just longer, but better.”
As current President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, the premise of Dr Katz’s work is based on the evidence of a litany of studies published since 1993 that show that around 80% of all chronic disease can be attributed to a particular short list of lifestyle behaviours. This is why cancers, cardiovascular disease, strokes, diabetes, dementia and other common killers are now commonly known as ‘lifestyle diseases’. Researchers have argued that they are not, in fact, ‘causes’ of death, but rather the tragic effects of disease-causing behaviours embedded in our lifestyles. As Dr Katz points out, the good news for us is that it means that 80% of chronic diseases are preventable if we make the necessary lifestyle changes.
“If you consider,” he says, “that a wealth of research has shown that people who eat well, exercise routinely, avoid tobacco, and control their weight have an 80% lower probability across their entire life spans of developing any major chronic disease, then we realize that this combination of not smoking, eating healthily, being physically active and managing weight is perhaps the greatest advance in the history of medicine.”
Internationally, Dr Katz is renowned for drawing our attention to what we are doing with our ‘fingers, forks and feet’. What we most need to reduce our risk of the most common diseases is to make sure our fingers are free of cigarettes, our forks are full of healthful food and that our feet carry us a fair distance each day. Stopping smoking may be hard, but it is a clear and possible goal. Body Mass Index (BMI) is a rougher measure, but it still serves to give us a fair enough indication of what our healthy weight should be. We know that at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day will go a long way to both managing weight and staying physically strong and limber.
However, with one fad diet after another capturing media attention and shifting us wilfully from low-fat to low-carb, from high-fat to high-protein, from vegan to carnivorous, there is unnecessary confusion and complexity about what really constitutes healthy eating.
Dr Katz cuts through the clamour of ‘the latest, greatest diet’ phenomenon by championing the simple, common sense advice of writer, Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” (In his book ‘In Defence of Food: Eater’s Manifesto’, Pollan expanded on what he means by ‘Eat food’ to assert that we should ‘avoid eating anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food’.)
What most countries’ most recent dietary guidelines have in common is the recommendation of eating patterns that are higher in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, whole-grains and seafood; and lower in red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, as well as refined starches. As Dr Katz pointed out: “Additional strong evidence shows that it is not necessary to eliminate food groups or conform to a single dietary pattern to achieve healthy dietary patterns. Rather, individuals can combine foods in a variety of flexible ways to achieve healthy dietary patterns, and these strategies should be tailored to meet the individual’s health needs, dietary preferences and cultural traditions.”
“It was wonderful to experience a leading international authority supporting a message that is at the very core of the work of South African dietitians,” says Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA) spokesperson, Cath Day, “Just because it can be such a profitable industry, there’s always going to be a ‘new’ idea for the next ‘right’ diet, which is usually based on some or other distortion of scientific evidence. But what Dr Katz emphasises is that, as nutrition professionals we already know exactly what balanced healthy eating is, and it is never going to be one single eating regime for everyone to follow. What we eat is rooted in our diverse cultures, affected by availability and influenced by our individual tastes. It is always possible for a person to transform to a healthy diet while fully taking into account their unique circumstances around food; and this is exactly what our dietitians work with clients to achieve.”
Dr Katz pointed out to the South African nutrition community that what conspires mightily against a culture of healthy eating in Western societies is far less about the distracting ‘noise’ of the latest fad diet. Instead he urged that the focus should remain steady on the proliferation and accessibility of a vast array of highly processed, fast and convenient foods which have invaded our eating regimes and are overwhelming our habits of sourcing fresh, natural foods and preparing healthful home meals from scratch.
“If lifestyle is the medicine, it is culture that is the spoon that makes the medicine do down,” concludes Katz. The trouble is that we currently have a culture that largely values convenience over health, and we make lifestyle choices, including what we do with our fingers, forks and feet accordingly.
Dr David Katz was in South Africa to speak at the 2016 South African Nutrition Congress hosted by the Nutrition Society of South Africa (NSSA) and ADSA. He invited the South African Nutrition community to join http://www.truehealthinitiative.org/ an international coalition uniting nutrition experts in the global consensus on lifestyle a medicine.
To find a dietitian in your area who can assist you with a healthy eating lifestyle plan, visit www.adsa.org.za